1987 Movie Review: BARFLY, 1987

Barfly, 1987
Classic Movie Review
Directed by Barbet Shroeder
Starring Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway and Frank Stallone
Review by Carey Lewis


A slice of life film about an admitted drunk and his adventure.


There was a time in the 80’s when Mickey Rourke was on his way to becoming the biggest movie star; if he wasn’t already at that status for a brief moment. It was in roles such as Barfly, Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Nine and ½ Weeks, and Angel Heart that was showing his tremendous talent, and solidifying him as a Hollywood heavyweight with a bright future ahead of him. Then it all kind of fell apart.

But this is a review about the movie, not the man, and google will be your friend if you’d like to know the story about Mickey Rourke. Barfly is simply one of the films that you can see how good of an actor Rourke was, and how much talent has been squandered. Sure, he’s back now, mainly smaller roles in Rodriguez films, but who knows what might have been? Another question that arises is, “can he still deliver on the talent he was given if only given the chance of bigger, juicier roles?” Well, I’m personally hoping someone asks that question and puts Mickey to the test.

So enough about Rourke, let’s talk about Rourke in Barfly.

Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, a self acknowledged drunk that repeats the same routine, day in and day out. He gets to his local bar, gets drunk, goes home to write a bit, goes back to the bar, gets drunk(er) and picks a fight with the bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone). Eddie always wins, Henry goes home, and the cycle repeats the next day.

However, one day Henry manages to beat Eddie, and as he tries to get a beer to celebrate his victory, Eddie refuses to let anyone serve him. Rather than mope or cry about it, Henry goes to another watering hole, where he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), another drunk, or “barfly.” Both are weird to say the least, so they hit it off immediately.

The next day Henry moves in with Wanda, and their rocky relationship begins. At one point she tells Henry that “she’ll leave with anyone who has a fifth of vodka.” At least she’s straight up and honest. Facing rent payments, and the bill for booze to be had, Henry goes out to get a job. While gone, Eddie happens to be around with a fifth of vodka.

This is the one person that Henry despises the most in the world. Not because Eddie is always handing Henry his ass, but because he sees the polar opposite of himself in Eddie. Eddie is all the things in life and the world which Henry hates. After a brief moment in the film, Wanda returns back to her apartment, and the two reconcile.

Meanwhile, throughout the story, Henry is being followed by Tully (Alice Kruge). It is unknown why, as Henry has blown her off every time she’s contacted him, until the final third of the film. It turns out Henry has submitted some of his writing to her magazine, and they have decided to publish it.

It is in this final bit of the movie that the film took a left turn that didn’t quite work for me. Tully sleeps with Henry the first day they finally meet and is ready for him to move into her guest house and become a writer and be with her. Now, I can understand the drunks getting together quite easily, but a highly established, educated publisher? That’s kind of a stretch for me. It’s alluded to that she fell in love with his writing and his way of life, but I wish a little more time would have been given to her motivation for this action. Yes, I know it fits into the themes of the movie, and definitely works to the favor of Henry’s character, but I wished it would’ve been down without the sacrifice to the Tully character.

Now, you may know that I usually do a shorter synopsis of the movie, stopping before giving away any major plot points of the film. I didn’t do that here. I gave away the whole film because this isn’t a film about a plot, this is a film about characters. It’s a classic character study that feels like a slice of life film. Shroeder plops you down onto a bar stool in a dive and says “hey, check these people out.”

Shroeder also does a great job of letting the actors “act” in their scenes together. He doesn’t force the pace with editing or weird camera angles. In fact, the way this film is directed by Shroeder, and shot by Robby Muller, you’d swear this film is from the 70’s. I was actually surprised to find out it was made in 87, and not in the earlier part of the decade.

The cinematography is definitely something to note here. This is one of the most naturally lit films I’ve seen in awhile. The light seems to always come from natural sources, such as windows, open doors, or lamps. The nighttime scenes are obviously lit, but not in a way that makes you notice that it’s been “lit.” The production design by Bob Ziembicki is also something to note as well, as the whole film looks dirty with stains on the walls, grungy locations, old mismatching furniture, and small apartments looking on the verge of being condemned.

Another ingredient that makes this film feel like the reality obsessed films of the 70’s is the lack of music in the film, other than source music. Source music in a scene, is when the music being heard is coming from somewhere within the movie, such as a character listening to the radio, or passing by an apartment with blaring music. Sydney Lumet also used this technique wonderfully in a couple of his masterpieces “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” It is these key components of cinematography, production design, direction, lack of music, and writing, which sell this as a quality character film that seems very realistic. Because of these elements, it really does feel like you’re dropped on a stool at the Golden Horn.

The writing by Charles Bukowski is seemingly simple, but complex. Rather than take the easier choices out of a situation, Bukowski instead stays true to his characters and never at any point in the film, does it feel like the film’s “written.” The characters never wallow in self-pity, but rather seem to accept who they are, and are happy being who they are. At one point, Henry has the opportunity to make it out, but that’s not what he wants, and Bukowski stays true to that.

Like most films dealing with alcoholics, a voice is heard telling the characters what they are doing, and doing to themselves, is wrong. This is often times a staple in this type of movie, and can easily come across as condescending. This film doesn’t do that. In fact, I would say it romanticizes the inebriated lifestyle. As I understand it, it is somewhat based on Bukowski’s life, which could be a reason for the romantic feel of the drunks. Oddly enough, they make you happy, and that’s a hard thing to do to make drunks make you happy when they have no desire to change at all. With the subject matter, you’d think this film would be either a slap-stick comedy, or a serious drama. Bukowski manages to make it fit comfortably in the middle.

Faye Dunaway is good in this film as Henry’s love interest; a girl who likes to drink and talk. After all, you don’t become “Faye Dunaway” by not being good. Normally, I’d say she was great in this film but truthfully, everyone else pales in comparison to Rourke in this show. In contrast to Rourke, Dunaway looks like she matted her hair after not washing it for a few days, and threw on some clothes that were in the hamper for a week. That’s not to say Dunaway is bad in this film, it’s just that Rourke’s so damn good. Yes, the lovable, charming drunk has been done in movies before, but they’re usually a supporting character. Rourke is the lovable, charming drunk in a lead role that almost begs you not to like him. He walks weird, he talks slow, and he has no ambition to be anymore than what he is. Rourke is also not afraid to look ugly either, which is definitely a necessity for this type of role. He doesn’t do good things, and he certainly doesn’t say good things, but there’s something about him that makes you think you just might want to be his friend. Maybe it’s because he’s more honest and sincere than most sober people, and those traits are rare.

So if you feel like getting to know some entertaining people and having them show you a little slice of their life, I recommend you grab a stool, order a beer, and watch the barflys in The Golden Horn. Or if your only experience to Mickey Rourke is Sin City and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, take a look at what this guy could do more than twenty years ago.

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